Trick, by Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, 176 pp, $ 9.99, ISBN: 978-1609454449
In Henry James’s 1908 ghost story “The Jolly Corner”, protagonist Spencer Brydon returns to his now empty childhood home and experiences a “sensation more complex than had ever before found itself consistent with sanity”. Such a description is fitting for James, who was known for the skill and lucidity with which he writes the life of the mind. However, the mind contains a few tricks, which is where Domenico Starnone’s latest novel, published in Italy in 2016 and translated by the admirable Jhumpa Lahiri in 2018, begins.
With a cleverly-placed cameo, Starnone’s Trick draws situationally from “The Jolly Corner”. Our protagonist, Daniele, an elderly illustrator, is working on a deluxe edition printing of the famed ghost story. In the middle of his labour he is interrupted and placed at the mercy of an inquisitive four-year-old grandchild – the only flesh-and-blood creature that can haunt with the same relentless audacity as an actual ghost. Within a context of family ties, the precocious Mario raises questions about both past and future, which linger, haunting the elderly Daniele, provoking thought and even a hint of jealousy.
The novel begins with a phone call. Daniele has been asked by his daughter Betta, an academic, to return to the Naples apartment in which he was raised to mind four-year-old Mario while she attends a conference with her husband, Saverio. Not so much a child as a small, walking “instruction manual”. Mario proves a major inconvenience to Daniele, who oscillates between strictness and a full embrace of the circumstances. His mild-mannered approach breaks down from time to time, due to exhausted patience as he struggles to keep up with the child.
Daniele is vulnerable; readers can detect it in his caution, his preferences for the predictable comforts of life. He lives according to his preferences – alone and several hours north in Milan. He is presently under the intense scrutiny of a young editor, who challenges his pace, his ideas, and his own beliefs about his talent. And worse, he is physically feeble; his haemoglobin is low and his mental state uncertain after a recent challenging surgery. With the understated craft of James, Starnone questions Daniele’s credibility on page one when the narrator tells of seeing “small heads, plaster-white, stretching toward me from the opposite wall” one afternoon while recovering from his surgery. Amidst his own recognition of his mental state, readers easily relax into sympathy.
This makes a refreshing change from the cowardice displayed by Sandro, the main male character of Starnone’s previous novel, Ties. Though Daniele could be an older Sandro – the two temperaments are similar enough – Trick presents us with a character who feels acutely the humility and feebleness that comes from age. Whether this should be regarded as Daniele’s wisdom, or merely his limitations, the tensions in the story reach the heart of readers, who can relate to Daniele’s predicament.
Despite his reluctance, Daniele goes to care for his grandson. He finds himself amidst a narrative of alliances and domestic frustrations in colloquial Naples, where neighbours don’t shy away from scorn. It becomes immediately obvious that Betta and Saverio’s marriage is tense, and Daniele sees Naples as a “city of dogs”. He is a transplant in the very soil he came from, a stranger in his own house, reliant on Mario’s expertise and articulation to get through the routines of the day, from lighting the stove to picking out what juice to drink. With this delightful coupling, Starnone sets up a perfect companionship narrative; what Mario lacks Daniele possesses, while Daniele’s weaknesses are compensated for by Mario’s precocious nature and know-it-all attitude that masks, if only momentarily, his tender, impressionable age. The two navigate several misadventures, despite seldom leaving the four walls of the apartment. Starnone builds emotionally wrenching tensions of memory, elucidates the weaknesses of old age and creates a comedy in which the tricksters are as often the tricked.
Events come to a head after a series of masterfully introduced foreshadowings, and eventually, Daniele and Mario must work as one to guide themselves out of a self-created mess. As enjoyable and amusing as this mess is, the central “duel” between Daniele and his grandson speaks to a rather tragic, yet hopeful component of life. Mario, whose parents believe him to be “gifted”, displays an affinity for drawing that is developed during Daniele’s visit. When the pair sit down to draw together, Mario mimics his grandfather and produces artwork that causes Daniele to consider twice. He is impressed by his grandson’s talent, but this respect is followed by a strange dejection when Mario is critical of his own work, telling him it is too dark, or too yellow – or any number of seemingly off-hand criticisms. Daniele, in his vulnerability, takes these comments to heart and allows his grandson’s flippant opinions to impact on him, adding to his sense of non-belonging to what once was his home.
When the master illustrator returns to Milan, will Mario’s artistic talents continue to evolve with nothing more than a few framed paintings hanging on the apartment’s walls? That Mario’s talents blossomed in the presence of his grandfather suggests a universal need for guidance, apprenticeship, a role model. A central question that Ties asks, and indeed many of us who grow up and move out of our home towns ask, is what inheritances have we when these central relationships go unnurtured?
Rather than answer this question directly, Starnone leaves readers with an ample appendix that explores Daniele’s intrapersonal reflections paired with notes on his artistic process, illuminating the psyche of the artist and the ways that, for better or for worse, life truly does imitate art.
Megan DeMatteo is an American poet and fiction writer.